Celebrating, but fighting back

Celebrating, but fighting back
For Ena Barrett, a member of the organising committee for Relay for Life Donegal, one of the most memorable moments from last year’s Irish Cancer Society fundraiser when hundreds of cancer survivors made the first lap around the track to kick off the 24-hour relay.

For Ena Barrett, a member of the organising committee for Relay for Life Donegal, one of the most memorable moments from last year’s Irish Cancer Society fundraiser when hundreds of cancer survivors made the first lap around the track to kick off the 24-hour relay.

Nearly 500 people between the ages of four and 92, wearing the purple Relay t-shirts for survivors, “swept on to the track -- it was just a fantastic feeling to walk around that track with that special bunch of people,” said Ena, herself a cancer survivor.

All proceeds from this year’s Relay for Life Donegal will go to the Irish Cancer Society for cancer research. Last year’s Donegal relay raised about €350,000, more than three times the organisers’ original goal. The funds were used to support Donegal cancer patients through services the Irish Cancer Society runs in the county as well as through investment in cancer research.

Ena said the sight of the survivors taking the lap of honour last year, “should inspire anybody to support research and the work that goes with it, because it’s research that ultimately improves the outcomes of our cancer patients.” Research, she said, “has us standing there as survivors.”

Relay for Life fundraisers, held around the world, are intended to celebrate cancer survivors. to remember those who have lost their struggle with cancer, and to fight back. A particularly moving part of last year’s Donegal relay was the lumineria, in which more than 5,000 candles of hope flickered in the dark, each bearing the name of a person touched by cancer.

And throughout the 24 hours, members of each team are walking, walking, walking around the track. Because cancer never rests, neither does the relay. Musicians, singers and other performers entertained participants throughout the day and night.

Ena and Bernie Gallagher of Mullaghduff, also a cancer survivor, last year were in charge of looking after and registering survivors and carers for the relay; this year it is Bernie and Colm Buckley. They also welcome carers who cared for people who are no longer with us, Bernie said.

Relay for Life Donegal 2013 will be held May 25th-26th at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology. They are heading toward having 72 teams confirmed.

“That is fantastic,” Ena said. “But the sad reality is that cancer has hit so many families here in Donegal and all over Ireland, and is continuing to hit families. And that’s why we are so determined to fund research this year.”

Bernie lives in Mullaghduff with her husband, Patrick. They have three daughters and three grandchildren. She wrote about her experience with cancer in a piece she delivered to the Gaoth Dobhair support group, Scaoil Saor ó Ailse, Break Free From Cancer.

On Sept. 10th, 2007, the day Bernie turned 49, she was told that she had ovarian cancer. Bernie underwent surgery and later took chemotherapy treatments from November of 2007 to March of 2008. She received her “all clear” in July of 2008.

“I was definitely one of the lucky ones and I am grateful for each new day now,” Bernie said, in the piece she wrote. “I do not regret having gone through what I did as it opened up a whole new world for me. I look at the world differently.

“The only time I said, ‘Why me?’ was when I attended the wakes and funerals of friends and neighbours who succumbed to cancer,” Bernie recalled. “Why was I saved? My belief is to show others how you can turn something negative, cancer, into something positive by turning your life around to help others.”

Bernie told the Gaoth Dobhair support group that visits and mass cards from friends, neighbours and family gave her courage and helped to keep up her spirits during treatment. She was particularly grateful to her daughters who took turns being “chemo buddies” and especially to her husband, who took a year from work to care for her.

“He was by my side for every doctor appointment, every chemotherapy treatment and anything I ever needed,” Bernie said. She said that after she received the all clear she wanted to give something back, so she raised funds for oncology departments and organised quizzes for fundraisers. Ena, a breast cancer survivor, and Bernie got together in 2008 after they finished their treatments and organised a fashion show and talk to raise more money for cancer services.

Later, “Ena rang me and said, ‘I have something else in mind to do for cancer’,” Bernie said. Bernie responded, “If it’s anything to do with cancer, count me in.”

Ena told Bernie about the Relay for Life. In 2008, Ena had heard of the event from Lori Preston Memme of Toronto, Canada, and when she learned there was one in Dundalk, she had gone to see it for herself. “I was blown away by it,” said Ena, adding, “I knew once I experienced it, I wanted to bring it to Donegal.”

Bernie said the sense of community that Relay for Life inspires among survivors and carers, other participants and volunteers is also an important benefit.

“What really got me was just the whole solidarity of the whole lot,” Bernie said. She spoke with each of the groups at the end of the 2012 relay. One of the groups she spoke with then were the first to sign up for the 2013 relay.

“And there were so many people who got out there and talked about cancer -- before that they wouldn’t have,” Bernie said. “It is as important for healing and so many people felt better for the 24 hours.” She said some people who had only planned to stay an hour or two wound up staying for the whole day.

“It was nice to see everybody have a good time,” she said. Bernie added that the response so far this year has again been strong.

“Anyone that I’ve phoned regarding the relay, asking, ‘Would you like to join us again this year?’ they’re saying, ‘Oh definitely, put me down’,” Bernie said. “That’s what I’m getting.”

For information or to register, contact relayforlifedonegal@gmail.com.